A short history
We live in a world filled with colour, endlessly complex, but subjective to us as a species. We give meaning to it, meaning that has evolved through culture, time, and region. We are so used to experiencing the world through our own culture and individual experience of it that it can be hard for us to consider viewing it through the lens of another. A kind of historical and cultural empathy. Take black for example, when viewed through one lens, black is a symbol of death, for piety, and mourning. Of surrender to religion, of decay, and of evil. When viewed through another, black can be a symbol of life, for the Nile swelling and making fertile land of its shores. A symbol of class, rebellion, counter-culture, and eventual normalcy.
We are fascinated by colour. Throughout history we’ve found hundreds and even thousands of ways of colouring our clothes, skin, adornments, and our architecture. For millennia, dyes were gained from nature, mostly plant, animal, or mineral in origin. Making several of them difficult to find in large quantities, others ill resistant to fading, and some difficult to transfer onto fabrics. In some cultures the absence of colour in clothing and houses were a sign of poverty, within certain religions or seclusion a symbol of abstaining. To others, the absence or presence of certain colours was simply what the land around them had provided. Think of cultures where multi-coloured garments, architecture, and adornments are a way of life, so deeply ingrained that the absence of it would be stranger than its presence. Ancient rome had a fascination bordering on obsession with purple, more specifically *Tyrian Purple, a pigment produced by several species of sea snail. The dye could be gained by ‘milking’ the snails or crushing and cleaning them. When using the latter technique you’d need about twelve thousand snails to dye a single trim of fabric. The sheer labour and amount of raw material made the colour worth its weight in silver and laws were set to restrict who could wear it.
The attire of the native people of Greenland was largely dictated by furs and animal skins, because that’s what their environment provided for them. This shifted in the 17th and 18th century with the arrival of European settlers. New fabrics, and goods entered their culture, along with the use of vibrant colours. Starting in 1721, with the arrival of Hans Egede, Greenland’s architecture shifted away from the traditional Inuit dwellings of turf huts, tents, and occasional igloos into a new colonial style. Wooden houses were erected with timber kits sent from Scandinavia, and each house was painted in a colour indicative of its function. Red for commercial buildings, black for Police, yellow for hospitals, and blue for fish factories. In the 20th century, other colours were added, such as purple, pink, and orange, the functional meaning of each colour made way for a more aesthetic value.
For centuries, in the West, black was the ultimate status symbol when it came to clothing. Before the advent of synthetic colours, it was a notoriously hard and expensive colour to dye, even if you were able to afford it there were laws in place assuring that only those of a certain class were allowed to wear black.
A human interpretation of the world
Our eyes translate colour into electric impulses that our brain can understand. But, even if our eyes are anatomically the same, who’s to say that you and I experience the colour blue in the same way. We might think we see blue in the same way and agree that the colour in front of us is blue, but how do we know? All we have is our senses translating the world and our brain deciding on how to process that information. This chasm between my experience of the world and yours is called the explanatory gap. Think about it in this way: There’s an object in front of us, say a table, and we’ve decided that the table is blue. But, why is it blue?
Light is electromagnetic radiation travelling in waves. Which we call the light spectrum, it goes from gamma rays on one end to radio waves on the other. In between them we have x-rays; ultra-violet; visible light (to us as humans); infrared; and microwaves. The closer the spectrum falls to gamma rays, the shorter the waves, and the closer they are to radio waves, the longer. This difference is called frequency, the same as it would of we were discussing sound, and we measure an animal’s ability to see colour by measuring the frequencies they’re able to pick up on. On the visible light spectrum violet and blue, falling close to ultra-violet travel in short waves, whilst green and yellow fall in the middle with medium waves, and orange and red, being closer to infra-red travel in long waves.
The cells in our eyes responsible for seeing colour are cones. We have three types of cone cells which are activated during the day or in well lit situations, and all three work together to determine the exact mix of hues, tones, and values in front of you. The darker our environment the more our ability to see colour diminishes. But, if our colour sensitive photoreceptors need enough light to function in how do we see in low light settings or at night? There’s a fourth kind of photoreceptor cell, called rod cells, they’re only sensitive to the amount of light that we observe, and our night vision relies almost solely on them.
Humans, along with primates, and a few select species of monkeys have three specific classes of cones with each class being either sensitive to blue, green, or red. This makes us trichromatic, whilst most other mammals are dichromatic, meaning their eyes are only sensitive to two colours. Many species of animals can see outside of the colour realm that we are able to pick up on, while others see less. Birds on top of possessing blue, green, and red sensitive photoreceptors, have a fourth cone sensitive to ultra-violet. So, do bees and many other insects. Some animals are able to pick up on ultra-violet, but not red waves. And, the most complex ocular system we have witnessed in the animal kingdom is that of the mantis shrimp. Mantis shrimp are marine crustaceans that are ten cm in length on average—though several species can grow larger than this. They have sixteen photoreceptors, with twelve dedicated to colour sensitivity, and four to colour filtering.
So, why is the table blue? The table is blue because it absorbs all other colours, or wave frequencies, but blue. The colour is reflected off the object, thus appearing blue to us. But, why is it blue to us? The table is blue because our eyes have developed photoreceptors sensitive to the colour blue. But, how do you experience the colour blue, how does it make you feel, what memories does it awaken, what preconceived or new ideas does it give rise to? And, how would you explain the colour blue to someone who was born blind? You could say: the colour blue is or feels cold. But, what kind of temperature related feelings can someone who’s born blind attach to colour? This is the explanatory gap, an inability we have as a species to explain to one another how things feel. Some theorise that our language will evolve in a way that we’ll one day have the right words to perceive each others experiences of the world, maybe technology will catch up, or maybe the gap will remain and we’ll never truly know what it’s like to experience the world through any other experience than our own.
Colour in Food
The colour of our food adds an additional layer to how we perceive flavour. We’ll expect food orange in colour to have a certain sweet taste; greens, depending on their level of cultivation to fall in a degree of bitterness; white to be rather bland, but often comforting when vegetable in origin; we expect reds and purples to be overflowing with a richness of flavour. On and on, conscious or otherwise, we have built certain expectations to what we want our food to taste like. Nature is filled with colour and flavour, parts of which we’ve harassed through cultivation and domestication. Breeding berries to be larger and sweeter; greens to have less bitter to them; tomatoes and aubergines to have less poison to them; bananas to be seedless. And, we’ve bred the wild and feral out of many we now consider farm or companion animals. Think of aurochs, wild boars, wolves, and many more that we now know as cows, pigs, and dogs. We’ve enlarged the edible, allowing ourselves to stray away from a hunter/gatherer living. This straying allowed villages to form, cities to rise, class and wealth to develop, and populations to swell, through domestication entire cultures were built. Allowing art and expression the room to morph through multiple iterations, language to develop further, religion a wider and stronger stance, science to answer a multitude of questions and ask a multitude more in return. It’s allowed the world as we know it today.
But, what have we lost? Within satisfaction and comfort we started eating the same things over and over. Quite literally, in domestication we’ve created cultivars of the same species, and we eat them in the sand castle belief that we’re indulging in variety. Shopping aisles stuffed with the packed and wrapped promises of diversity, the offerings of a feast of empty calories and the illusion of nutritional riches. We’re hardwired to see variety as something that will deeply nourish us. It’s why we can eat more when there’s a plentitude of colour on our plate. It’s why M&M’s, Jelly Beans, and other candy come in an array of colours to put a rainbow to shame. We have a primal brain in a modern world, and the world we’ve created is very good at fooling it. And, none so more than the behemoth we call the food industry.
That extra dash of red to make your tomato sauce pop, the orange in your soda, a dash of caramel to give a tan to your grilled chicken. All of it carefully designed to trick our brains into thinking our bottled, canned, boxed, partially hydrogenated, wrapped, packed, tinned, and jarred pseudo-food is fresher and more nutritious than it actually is.
In 1856, William Henry Perkins, discovered, quite by accident, the first synthetic colour. He created the colour, *mauve or mauveine, through a failed experiment in searching for a cure for Malaria. It’s a colour we now consider rather drab, but in its initial conception it was a brilliant coloured fuchsia. The colour, used to dye fabric, was ill resistant to fading, hence its current association. Though an accident, the discovery steam-rolled an industry. Synthetic dyes levelled the playing field, and colourful attire became attainable to people of all walks of life. As a consequence colour gained the stain of artifice and for the most part lost its symbolism of wealth and status. These new dyes were used mostly in fashion, decoration, and by artists. It was only later that colourants started to be used within food, drinks, and confectionary, and in its early days the market was heavily unregulated. The real cost of artificial dyes is its destructive impact on the environment and our health. Aside from their pollutive nature, synthetic colours have been linked to nerve damage, hyperactivity, developmental problems, and cancer.
You know that moment when you get distracted in the kitchen and you leave your pan too long on the stove. That moment where your veg is long past it’s perfect point of bright and colourful. Now, imagine if you could add a splash of green, so your kale and pea soup looks like it was cooked to perfection. This is what happens to (over)processed food on a very small and simplified scale. I say simplified because my example doesn’t come near the actual process of cooking, freezing, thawing, re-cooking, pulping, mashing, re-heating, re-everything-ed add infinitum. Nor does it come close to the magnitude and science the food industry applies to pre-cooked, ready meal, and packaged food.
That splash of green I mentioned, to find just the hue you need there are several companies who offer richly filled catalogues with an array of colours to pick and mix from. Maybe you’d like a bright dark green, then Copper-Chlorophyllin or E141 might be your thing. E141s, as well as E140s, are green colourants, from natural sources, extracted through solvents, with E141s given an additional step by replacing the magnesium in the *chlorophyll(in) with copper. The addition of copper creates a colourant, and subsequent food product, with a lower light-sensitivity and threshold for heath. If an E140 or 141 isn’t the right hue for your product, say you’d like something closer to that childhood dream of what you imagined Martians to look like, there’s always the full synthetic way in the shape of Green S or E142—a synthetic coal tar triarylmethane dye. Food manufactures are legally obligated to use the E number, within the EU, or the name of the colour of the ingredient no matter if the colourant is artificial, solvent extracted, or chemically altered. In our modern time, consumers have become more label savvy, and become more likely to avoid E numbers. Hence colour producers have replaced some of their colourants with more ‘wholesome’ colourants such as spinach and stinging nettle, which can labelled as an ingredient. So, when a product boasts its free-from artificial anything, it means that it’s free from chemically synthesised colours and other additives. It can still contain colourants, just ones where the raw ingredient or starting ingredient is plant (tomatoes), animal (cochineal), bacterial (Blakeslea trispora and Monascus spp.), or fungi (Arthrospira spp.) in origin. This is what it means when an ingredient is labeled as natural. Regardless of its level of processing, as long as it has a ’natural’ source it can be labelled as such.
If sight is such an important factor in our eating habits, that the food industry has vast colour catalogues to pick and mix from, what does it mean to be colourblind. The world doesn’t exist in pure colours, it exists in a wide array of hues, tones, values, and mixes. As a survival mechanism we are hardwired to question our food, and colour is one of the cues we use, so how would you experience food if your interpretation of colour was diminished, absent, or if you received no visual information in the first place? If you have a diminished sensitivity to blue, any colour you’re observing that has even the slightest amount of blue mixed into it will either look more green or red. So, what does that mean when it comes to food? Imagine having a very low sensitivity, or none at all, to green or medium wavelengths. Could you tell if the bananas you’re buying are ripe or unripe? How would you know? If you can’t spot the colour green or any shade thereof, what to a person with perfect trichromatic vision would look like a yellow, almost ripe banana with a hint of green, simply looks like a yellow banana to someone with impaired green sensitive cones. How appetising would green veg look, if it took on muddy and yellow hues, how could you tell if you overcooked it or not. Children can be particularly picky eaters, but how much harder would it be to get your kid to eat green veg if it looked like it was dragged from the murky depths of a nearby river. What would apples look like, with their many cultivars, if your sensitivity to green or red would be missing? How would you know if a piece of meat is well cooked or to your liking if you had a diminished sensitivity to red. Would you have to time yourself, learn to know what a well cooked piece of meat feels like? What other senses would you have to train, if you can’t fully trust your visual input?
Colour is endlessly complex, and seen through the lens of different cultures, times, meanings, and impairments its complexity only unfolds further.
Love this post, why not share it
* A more in depth exploration of the colour purple, and Tyrian Purple, will take place when I explore the colour in its own series in a few months.
* I mentioned that mauve was the first synthetic colour. I have reason to think the history of synthetic colours is far more complex and predates 1856. So, I'd like to research it more and dedicate a separate post to the subject.
* Chlorophyll colourant is oil soluble, chlorophyllin is chlorophyll made water-soluble through a saponification process.
- Blythman, Joanna. 'Swallow This: serving up the food industry's darkest secrets'. Fourth Estate, 2015, London.
- Jacobs, Gerald H. 'Evolution of colour vision in mammals'. Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2009 Oct 12, London.
- Mortensen, Alan. 'Carotenoids and other pigments as natural colourants'. Pure Applied Chemistry (PAC), Vol 78, N°08, 2006.
- Stevens, Michael. 'Is your red the same as my red'. Youtube, Vsauce, 2013
- 'Types of Colour Blindness'. colourblindawareness.org.
- 'Current EU approved Additives and their E numbers'. Food Standards Agency (FSA), 2014, UK.
- 'Guidelines on approaches to the replacement of Tartrazine, Allura Red, Ponceau 4R, Quinoline Yellow, Sunset Yellow and Carmoisine in food and beverages'. Food Standards Agency (FSA), UK.
- 'Tyrian Purple'. Wikipedia.
- Orwell, George. 'The Road to Wigan Pier'. Victor Gollancz, 1937, London. Following is a larger excerpt from Chapter 6 of the book:
If the English physique has declined, this is no doubt partly due to the fact that the Great War carefully selected the million best men in England and slaughtered them, largely before they had had time to breed. But the process must have begun earlier than that, and it must be due ultimately to un-healthy ways of living, i.e. to industrialism. I don't mean 'the habit of living in towns--probably the town is healthier than the country, in many ways--but the modern industrial technique which provides you with cheap substitutes for everything. We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun.
I spend a large part of my time researching and studying, but at the end of the day, it's still a learning process. Therefore, If you think I got any of the information wrong, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email with the correct information.